It was dark and it was cold. The prison cells of Azkaban were not places that allowed for anything that resembled a happy memory. They – with their stone, metal and magic; patrolled by the Dementors of soundless steps and black-hole stares – were unforgettable, eternal, Gordian knots of misery. The only one who could laugh in there was Bellatrix, her cackles of deranged, uncomprehending glee circling the hive of doom that was Azkaban.
At this moment though, if someone offered him a choice between a prison cell in Azkaban and this multiplex in Andheri, Sirius Black would probably pick Azkaban over this. It had been almost 12 hours of non-stop Bollywood blockbusters, interrupted by intervals that provided no relief because they were punctuated by the smell of stale popcorn and chewy frankies that tasted like they were cursed. On the screen at this very moment was a woman showing her love for a man by standing in an empty landscape, mouthing the words to a song that was inexplicably accompanied by an invisible orchestra while a mysterious breeze, that didn’t reach the leaves of nearby trees, managed to make the woman’s clothing flutter in a gravity-defying fashion. Earlier, a man had pointed to a pigeon as an agent of terror. At another point in the day in another movie, a group of men had stuck the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner between a woman’s parted legs and pulled out a baby. You had to wonder about the physics of a world when it seemed illogical even to a wizard, Sirius thought to himself.
Herself. Not himself.
It was time he, no, she got used to this new body. It was one of the many things that had changed since The Incident – Sirius Black was a woman now. He, rather she, was also short, overweight, had an unflagging appetite for cheese and an unnerving habit of sneakily taking photos with her phone. There was no wand, no magic, no Dementors; only Bollywood on a seemingly unending loop.
“Why so Sirius?”
She started at the hiss near her ear and turned to its source. In the dim light, two eyes glittered as they stared back at her. Sirius took a moment to muse upon her fate. She could go from he to she, she could return from the other side of the veiled archway that had claimed the most powerful of wizards, but at the end of the day, he (she) was still locked in a cold, dark place with Death Eaters and Bellatrix’s voice in his (her) ears.
Except Bellatrix had also been transformed. Like all the other Azkaban inmates, including Sirius, Bellatrix was now a film reviewer. Like Sirius, Bellatrix had undergone some drastic exchange: she was now a tall, thin, moustachioed man.
“What did you say?” Sirius asked slowly and softly.
“We’re watching a romantic comedy,” Bellatrix replied. “There’s no need to be serious.”
“I am Sirius.”
Bellatrix’s mouth widened with laughter, but instead of a cackle, a series of grunts emerged. Someone threw some popcorn at Bellatrix and hushed her. Sirius began revising her opinion of this world of Andheri multiplexes.
“If I had my wand,” Bellatrix muttered furiously and slouched in her seat. She turned back to Sirius. “Don’t look so smug, cousin mine. Don’t forget. I killed you.”
“And yet, here you are, Bellatrix, still the pest you’ve always been. Some things don’t change.”
“You’re a fool. Everything’s changed. We are nothing like what we were.”
“I suppose you do have a moustache. It really does bring out your cheekbones.”
“At least I write for a real publication.”
Bellatrix flashed a little card at Sirius. It said “PRESS” in one corner and had Bellatrix’s new face in a little photograph in another corner. Sirius peered at the card.
“L. Balakrishna, The Times of India,” Sirius read out loud. “Who needs a wand when you’ve got that in your hand?”
“Show me yours.”
Sirius turned to the screen, pointedly ignoring the demand. Bellatrix/Balakrishna grabbed the bag at Sirius’s feet, pulled out the wallet and found her press card.
“Oh god!” Bellatrix/Balakrishna started grunting with laughter again. “You write for a website! You’re right. Some things don’t change. You’re still siding with the losers. What is that name? Dee –”
“I’m sticking to Sirius Black.” Sirius plucked the card out of Bellatrix/Balakrishna’s fingers and put it back in the wallet.
Both of them turned their attention to the screen. While watching two men punch each other repeatedly for no comprehensible reason, Sirius went back to what she’d been doing for the past ten hours: trying to figure out what was going on and why it was going on.
Something had happened in the magical world, something big. Nothing else explained the fact that Sirius Black was now a she and in Andheri instead of Azkaban. It must have something to do with the Ministry of Magic’s stash of time turners, Sirius decided. That would explain the undead part because she could think of no other magic that could have pulled Sirius out of the veiled archway. Surviving the veiled archway was impossible and in a sense, Sirius hadn’t survived either, given instead of being a man in black robes, he was now a woman in a black sari.
It was a strange state to be in. Sirius remembered life as Sirius Black the wizard who had gone through The Veil and at the same time, s/he knew everything about life as Sirius Black the Muggle woman and film reviewer. This business of being a woman didn’t feel bad though, Sirius had to admit. But Sirius couldn’t stop wondering what had happened. One moment he’d had been floating through the darkness of the veiled archway, the next moment he was in this body, in this multiplex and on the screen were the words “Chennai Express”.
Which reminded Sirius that she had to get out of here. Sitting with the Death Eater reviewers, watching these films, it was sucking the life out of Sirius’s brain in a way that years in Azkaban hadn’t. Sirius looked around. There were men guarding every doorway. A few of the doors also had barriers. If only she had her wand! Think Sirius, she told herself sternly. You made it out of Azkaban, she reminded herself, you can find a way out of here.
Carefully, Sirius sidled out of her seat and walked up to the nearest set of ushers. The moment she came close, one of them droned out, “No exit.”
Sirius allowed herself a moment’s daydream, in which she had her wand and these little cretins suddenly discovered they were frogs. Or cockroaches.
“I need the bathroom.” Sirius tried for a sweet, pleading voice. It came out sounding rather alarmingly like a drill sergeant ordering troops to fall in line. Sirius tried again. “Please?”
“No exit.” The two men spoke together.
“But I don’t want to exit. I just want to go to the bathroom.”
Sirius’s hands clenched, their muscle memory remembering the feeling of her wand when magic was about to lash out of its tip. This wouldn’t do. Sirius needed to think not as a wizard, but as film reviewers in Andheri do. And she needed to come up with something fast. If any of the other Death Eaters/ reviewers figured out she was getting out of here, then…Sirius refused to think about that possibility.
There had to be something she could do. Sirius stuck her hand into her bag, hoping there was something in there that she could use to her advantage. A notebook, another notebook, a lozenge, a CD, a book, a phone, a packet of chips, a tiny tube of something that squirted out sweet-smelling cream – if Sirius hadn’t been in this woman’s body, he’d have shaken her violently. What kind of an idiot carries two notebooks but no wand in their bag? – and then, her fingers found it. Triumphantly, she clutched it, whipped it out of the bag and brandished as though she was holding the Elder Wand. Except what she had in her hand was not a wand, but a Whisper Ultra Soft sanitary napkin.
The two guards stepped back, horror and fear making them shake. They looked away from Sirius, as though the sight of the single sanitary napkin was just too terrible to look upon for more than a second. One of them released the red band that barred the audience from reaching the exit. Sirius felt her heart beat faster as she took one step and then another, towards freedom.
But the moment she opened the door, she knew there was trouble ahead. The door made a screeching sound, let in a thick panel of light as well as a powerfully aromatic cloud of synthetic flavours. Even as Sirius exited the theatre and entered the lobby, she knew what was coming: a horde of Death Eaters/ reviewers who were going to cause a stampede as they charged towards the counters for their free samosa, medium drink and small popcorn.
In a matter of seconds, the lobby was in chaos. Names were being yelled, popcorn was spilling, samosas were dying a thousand deaths. How Sirius heard her phone ring in the middle of all this is a mystery, but hear it she did. On the screen flashed “Severuskar, Editor”, which meant she couldn’t afford to miss this call.
Using her Whisper Ultra Soft sanitary napkin to make way – it was the darndest thing. The sight of that square, plastic package made everyone step back. Sirius was starting to think this was almost as good as a wand – she made her way to the bathroom. It was, strangely enough, empty. Fortunately, Severuskar hadn’t hung up, which meant it was time for Sirius to answer her phone.
“Are you serious?” a man whispered with menacing softness through the receiver.
“I am Sirius, yes.”
“I’ve been calling you for the last 20 minutes.”
“I was in the theatre and there was a stampede –”
“How delightful for you. Just what makes you think I care?”
There was something about the voice that made Sirius remember Snape. Had Snape been brought up on prawn koliwada instead of whatever it was that his mother fed him, he’d have sounded like Severuskar. Sirius shook herself out of these daydreams and paid attention to what Severuskar was saying to her.
“…one interview with each of them, talking about what they see in the mirror. I need the copy in my inbox by the end of the day. Is that clear?”
“No, actually, it’s nowhere near clear. Could you repeat that? The signal is a bit dodgy here.”
“There’s a Bollywood party that you need to cover.”
“A Bollywood party, which involves actors from Bollywood. The party is being thrown by one of the biggest glass manufacturers in Asia and they’ve brought down a mirror. So you must get each Bollywood actor to stand before the mirror and tell you what they see. We’re running it as a series titled “(Wo)Man in the Mirror”.
Sirius was suddenly filled with nostalgic longing for her, his, cell in Azkaban.
“There is no way I’m doing that,” she told Severuskar.
“You heard me, Severuskar. I would rather live my life in solitary confinement than hang around at a Bollywood party and do those inane interviews.”
“Well, as it turns out, you live in a company flat, you’re not from Mumbai and we both know how it’s only because I’m the sort that gives people chances that you have this job at all.”
“I’m here because I can write.”
“No, you’re here because we let you be here,” Severuskar chuckled in a way that was almost sub-sonic and all the more chilling for that reason. “Do you remember how many times you were rejected before I gave you this job, how close you were to going home?” He said the word “home” with such a sneer that Sirius wanted to punch his teeth in. “And they didn’t even know your real deep, dark secret,” Severuskar continued. “That you’ve worked for Wol D’Mart. What was it that you did for that megamall owner? Marketing or corporate communications?”
“I wonder if even Wol D’Mart will hire you again if it’s pointed out to that you weren’t even born in Mumbai,” Severuskar continued. “When he’s told that you just transplanted yourself here a few years ago because you wanted to take a job that rightfully belonged to a Marathi manoos.”
“I prefer to call it Bombay,” Sirius said quietly. “You’ll have the interviews before the end of the day.”
With that, Sirius ended the phone call, took a deep breath and headed for the Bollywood party downstairs.